Psalm 119:113–120; Ezekiel 36:8–36; 1 Peter 4

Psalm 119:113–120: Our psalmist’s world view is binary. There are the followers of God’s law like him and there are the evildoers, whom he hates:
The perverted I hated
and your teaching I loved.” (113)

Evildoers are to be avoided at all costs because theY create a hinderance to one’s ability to follow God’s laws:
Turn away from me, evildoers,
that I may keep the commands of my God.” (115)

It’s worth noting that this entire psalm is about loving God’s law, but not necessarily God himself. In fact, God comes across as a pretty unpleasant, saber-rattling character who shows no grace whatsoever but mainly exists to punish miscreants who fail to follow God’ law:
You spurned all who stray from Your statutes,
for their deception is but a lie.
Like dross You destroy the earth’s wicked.
therefore I love Your precepts.” (118, 119)

The final verse of the stanza gives us an insight into the psalmist’s true feelings about God, which are quite a contrast to his feelings about God’s law:
My flesh shudders from the fear of You,
and of Your laws I am in awe.” (120)

Of course when we think about God’s true nature there’s no question that shuddering flesh (great phrase) is an important aspect of our response. That’s why I’m grateful for Jesus interceding with God on our behalf. But again, how much better (even easier?) to have faith in Jesus Christ than in God’s law.

Ezekiel 36:8–36: Still speaking as the voice of God to the mountains and other geography of Israel, Ezekiel describes how Israel will one day be restored: “I will cause many people to live on you—yes, all of Israel. The towns will be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt. I will increase the number of people and animals living on you, and they will be fruitful and become numerous. I will settle people on you as in the past and will make you prosper more than before.” (10, 11)

Which must have sounded pretty good to those Jews stuck in exile in Babylon.

The chapter goes on, becoming increasingly explicit, about how Israel will one day be restored. But before there is restoration there is God’s reminder of Israel’s vile deeds that led to their present situation: “when the people of Israel were living in their own land, they defiled it by their conduct and their actions. Their conduct was like a woman’s monthly uncleanness in my sight.” (17) We’ve encountered a lot of metaphors and similes in our readings, but the comparison of israel’s sins to a woman’s menstrual period certainly stands out!

Because of their manifold sins, God “dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions.” (19)

But now there will be restoration, but it’s certainly not because of anything that Israel has done. It’s not even clear if there’s any repentance on their part. Rather it’s because God, being God, will just do for them because he wants to: “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.” (22)

For me, the centerpiece of this chapter is God’s magnificent promise not only to restore the land but to restore the people—and that includes us—through baptism: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (25, 26)

Moreover, God will send what I take to be the Holy Spirit to these restored people—and to us: “And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (27)

This is one of those points in the OT where it becomes completely clear that there is great continuity between what the prophets foretold and what became reality through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ saving power indeed returns our stone-cold hearts to flesh, which is feeling and emotion, and caring for ourselves and for others.

This passage is also the great antecedent for the sacrament of baptism, and gave John the Baptist sound theological ground for his message and baptism in the wilderness. And as Jesus promises in the Upper Room Discourse, God has planned all along to provide the Holy Spirit to us.

As Ezekiel’s voice of God states over and over, God is not doing this because of anything Israel—or we—have done. It is strictly God’s own initiative: “ I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!” (32) God acts from pure grace—grace that our psalmist does not know or understand. And neither do we. At the core of Lutheran theology is the fact that it is Jesus who comes to us, not of any good works we have done to make God happy.

Unlike our evangelical brethren who talk about “making a decision for Christ,” Ezekiel makes it clear that God has made a decision for us—even though we don’t deserve it.

1 Peter 4: Because of what Christ has done for us, we “do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires,but rather for the will of God.” (2) In other words, we must abandon our former habits. Our former friends may be surprised and even angered at our change in behavior: “They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.” (4)

This is certainly something to center our own lives around as we live in an increasingly post-Christian world. The Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake to celebrate a gay wedding has certainly felt the impact of Peter’s assertion. The question for me is, would I be courageous enough to stand up to friends who encourage ungodly behavior?

Peter’s remarks are a terrific checklist for how to live an honest Christian life: “Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others,as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (7-10)

In fact, Peter continues, when we are confronted and reviled by others, “if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (16)

As always the challenge is, do I meet these standards? When measured against these standards I’m afraid the answer is generally ‘no.’

Psalm 119:105–112; Ezekiel 34:20–36:7; 1 Peter 3:8–22

Psalm 119:105–112: This stanza opens with the most well-known verse among the 176 that comprise this endless psalm:
A lamp to my feet is Your word
and a light to my path.” (105)

Or, as I memorized it in 5th grade Sunday School in the King James version: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Amazing how some things just stick in one’s brain.

Other than that, the themes of this section are pretty familiar. The psalmist notes that he follows God’s laws and also that “I have been sorely afflicted.” (107a) followed by the now familiar supplication:
O Lord, give me life, as befits Your word.
Accept my mouth’s free offerings, Lord,
and teach me Your laws.” (107b, 108)

Once again he reminds God that although “My life is at risk at all times,” [presumably his enemies are still after him], nonetheless “Your teaching I do not forget.” (109) And just to make sure God gets the point, he follows the practice of Hebrew poetry by repeating the thought—albeit reworded— it in the next verse:
The wicked set a trap for me,
yet from Your decrees I did not stray.” (110)

We certainly have to admire our psalmist’s tenacity as he continues to state that upholding God’s law is the raison d’etre of his life:
“I inclined my heart to do Your statutes
forever without fail.” (112)

I think the lesson here for me is that it’s worth setting a clear goal and sticking to it through thick and thin. Would that my faith was as tenacious as our poet’s dedication to God’s law.

Ezekiel 34:20–36:7: Stretching the sheep/shepherd metaphor to unprecedented lengths, Ezekiel states that because of the failure of its human leadership, God will be Israel’s shepherd: “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.” (34:22) God, speaking as always through Ezekiel, is very clear about exactly how he will accomplish that: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.” (34:23) From our Christian perspective there’s no question who this new David is: Jesus.

God continues his promises, telling them that “will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety.” (34:25) Since we’re deep into interpreting this metaphor, I’ll suggest that the “savage beasts” are symbolic the various nations arrayed against Israel. Or perhaps they are simply the wild animals that roamed the countryside back then.

Things get even more specific later in this speech as God promises, “They will no longer be plundered by the nations, nor will wild animals devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid.” (34:28) The chapter concludes with the famous line that also occurs in Psalm 100: “You are my sheep,the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (34;31) This verse also provides the crucial context for Jesus when he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). Obviously, any Pharisee or religious official that heard Jesus say this would be familiar with this verse. No wonder they bridled at Jesus’ bold assertion that sounds like blasphemy to their ears.

This essay on Israel’s future is interrupted by a curse against Edom in the next chapter, which had rejected Israel’s pleas for help somewhere along the line. So Edom is rewarded with a curse: “I will treat you in accordance with the anger and jealousy you showed in your hatred of them and I will make myself known among them when I judge you.” (35:11) And today we are well aware that Edom is no more, but Israel prospers.

The next chapter has Ezekiel literally prophesying to the mountains around Israel, which have been captured by its enemies: “Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel and say to the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I speak in my jealous wrath because you have suffered the scorn of the nations. … I swear with uplifted hand that the nations around you will also suffer scorn.” (36:6, 7) What strikes me here is that God’s very creation is bound up in the fate of Israel. Mountains and valleys are simply more characters in God’s great drama about Israel and its fate.

1 Peter 3:8–22: This is one of those sections that remind us that although the New Testament is informed by the Old Testament, Jesus has radically altered the rules of the game. And no more so than in how we are to treat those who hate and/or oppress us. In the OT, many psalms pray for God to wreak vengeance on enemies. Here in 1 Peter, we are told, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (9) Wow. That’s really hard.

However, Peter makes his case perfectly by quoting from Psalm 34, verses 12 to 15:
For,

“Whoever would love life
    and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
    and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
    they must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
    and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (10-12)

There’s little question that Peter’s community was experiencing oppression and he writes encouragingly: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” (13-14) Nevertheless, it’s a difficult ask. Many people today who are hostile to Christianity often interpret someone’s eagerness to be good as hopelessly naive and politically incorrect—or worse.

But there’s much more to Peter’s advice than simply telling us not to be afraid. We must be equipped to respond: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (15) Peter becomes the psychologist here, suggesting that by being treated well, “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (16) Nice idea,but it doesn’t always work out that way. Nevertheless, that’s no excuse for us not to be gentle in the face of hostility.

Peter then veers off in an unexpected direction, telling us that Jesus preached to the dead during the period he was in the tomb: “He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” (18 19)  [I assume this is one of the verses in the NT that led to the statement, “He descended to hell (or descended to the dead)” in the Apostle’s Creed.] Peter even identifies who these dead people were: “those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” (20a) Huh?

But quickly we see where Peter is heading: it’s all about baptism: “only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” (20b, 21)

The reading ends, having traversed the distance from hell to heaven itself. Baptism “saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (21b, 22) Which is a wonderful metaphor for exactly what Jesus does for us through the waters of baptism. We are transported from the grim fate of a lonely hell separated from God to joining in worship with the angels in heaven.

Psalm 119:97–104; Ezekiel 33:21–34:19; 1 Peter 3:1–7

Psalm 119:97–104: Our wordy and rather obsequious psalmist gets a little boastful here:
How I loved Your teaching,
All day long it was my theme.
Your command makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is mine forever.
I have understood more than all my teachers
for Your precepts became my theme.
I gained insight more than the leaders
for Your decrees I kept.” (97-100)

Really? I’ll buy “wiser than my enemies,” but “I understood more than all my teachers”  and “gained insight more than the elders” seem more than a bit over the top.

Our poet gives credit for this superiority to the fact that he’s good: the Law is his “theme” and that “Your decrees I kept.” In current parlance that’s what we call a ‘humblebrag.”

The stanza continues in this “I’m better than you because I followed God’s law” tone as he ladles on more statements to make sure we understand that he is a better Jew than all his peers because he is more faithful to God’s law than they:
From all evil paths I held back my feet,
so that I might observe Your word.
From Your laws I did not swerve,
for You Yourself instructed me.” (101-102)

This braggadocio ends with a tasty metaphor:
How sweet to my palate Your utterance,
more than honey to my mouth.” (103)

For me, that’s a appropriate image, although not in the sense the psalmist intended: this stanza is far too cloying—sort of like eating too much honey.

Ezekiel 33:21–34:19: Ezekiel, writing from Babylonian exile, hears from a man who escaped the carnage that Jerusalem has fallen. Ezekiel takes this opportunity to lecture his listeners on why that has happened.

First, he deals with the widespread belief that Jerusalem is rightfully Jewish territory in perpetuity. But Ezekiel, speaking as always as the voice of God, asks rhetorically: “Since you eat meat with the blood still in it and look to your idols and shed blood, should you then possess the land? You rely on your sword, you do detestable things, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife. Should you then possess the land?’” (32:25, 26)

Since they have sinned so mightily, the Jews should have no expectation of retaining possession of Jerusalem and its suburbs. On the contrary, they will meet grim ends: “those who are left in the ruins will fall by the sword, those out in the country I will give to the wild animals to be devoured, and those in strongholds and caves will die of a plague.” (32:27) God promises further, “ I will make the land a desolate waste, and her proud strength will come to an end.” (32:28)

Ezekiel is apparently a popular prophet and people come to listen to what he has to say. And now he says something that’s just as relevant to us today as to the people he spoke to several millennia ago: “Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain.  Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.” (32:31b, 32) If we ever needed a cogent description of hypocrisy in the church it is right here.

Chapter 33 is an extended metaphor with Israel’s leaders being shepherds and the people they lead being sheep. The shepherds have failed mightily: “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.” (33:2, 3) Ezekiel continues, telling them how the leaders “have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.” (33:4)

This failure of leadership has had doleful consequences, specifically the dispersion of the Jews over all the nations: “My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.”  (33:6)

But God is still faithful and he still loves the Jews and promises that “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” (33:12) Notice how God says he “is with them.”

I think this is God’s great promise that he fulfills in a most unexpected way: the incarnation of Jesus Christ: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (33:16)

The reading ends on one more excoriation of the Jewish leadership: “Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” (33:19)

How many Christian leaders have trampled on the metaphorical grass and muddied the theological waters? Alas, Ezekiel’s assertion is as true today as back then.

1 Peter 3:1–7:  As Paul did, Peter takes up the thorny issue of domestic relationships. As always we need to bear the social context of that culture and time in mind: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1,2)

This is an interesting twist and suggests that in Peter’s community women more readily became Christians than their husbands. But the important idea here is that deeds, not words, are what matter most. Peter is far more marketing-oriented than Paul as he frames the desired behavior of wives in a gentle and appealing manner: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (3,4)

He then points up examples from history, that “the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves” (5) to suggest that if these fine women “submitted themselves to their own husbands,” why would any woman want to do otherwise today? All in all, it’s brilliant psychology.

Peter asks husbands to respond with the same considerate gentleness. There is no sense of the overbearing that we feel elsewhere in the the NT, especially those distressing passages in the Pastoral epistles: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.” (7) Yes, I know that “weaker partner” is offensive in the context of today’s culture that is obsessed with equality in all things. Yet for me, there is something wonderfully anodyne in how Peter expresses the idea.

 

Psalm 119:89–96; Ezekiel 32:17–33:20; 1 Peter 2:13–25

Psalm 119:89–96: We return to an underlying theme in this psalm: the infinite extent of God’s word being a key element of his original creative act—a theme the first chapter of John picks back up with a far more revolutionary meaning:
Forever, O Lord,
Your word stands high in the heavens.
For all generations Your faithfulness.
You made the earth firm and it stood.
By Your laws they stand to this day,
for all are Your servants.” (89-91)

God’s word is the one thing we can rely on. And our psalmist credits God’s word as having rescued him from death:
Had not Your teaching been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.” (92)

While our psalmist celebrates the power of God’s law, we would do well to reflect for a moment on how we, who live through the grace of Jesus Christ—God’s true Word, have so much more than just God’s decrees or laws. This is the point Jesus makes when he says he has come to fulfil the law, not reject it. Paul develops this theme of Jesus being the apotheosis of the law in Romans: Jesus, as God’s word, is God’s ultimate decree. Therefore, we do not have to plead as the psalmist does:
I am Yours, O rescue me,
for Your decrees I have sought.” (94)

We do not have to seek out Jesus; he has come to us. Will we accept him, realizing that God’s Word is far greater than our feeble efforts to find God?

Ezekiel 32:17–33:20: Just when you think things can’t get any weirder in this book, Ezekiel ups the ante. Ezekiel is called by God to pronounce doom on Egypt. [Again we ask, why is the fate of Egypt taking up so much space in this book?]

Apparently Egypt feels it can escape the fate of Assyria. Ezekiel speaks for the empires that have already fallen: “Are you [Egypt] more favored than others? Go down and be laid among the uncircumcised.’ They will fall among those killed by the sword. The sword is drawn; let her be dragged off with all her hordes.” (32:19, 20) Then, even more remarkably, it is the already dead who speak, assuring Egypt that it too will fall: “From within the realm of the dead the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, ‘They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’” (32:21)

He goes on to list all the countries that have been defeated, presumably by Babylon. Assyria is “surrounded by the graves of all her slain, all who have fallen by the sword.” (32:22) As well, ““Elam is there, with all her hordes around her grave. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword. All who had spread terror in the land of the living went down uncircumcised to the earth below.” (32:24) Not to mention Meshek and Tubal [whoever they were] and Edom.

This is all to underscore the validity of Ezekiel’s pronouncement of doom on Egypt: “You too, Pharaoh, will be broken and will lie among the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.” (32:28) Which I believe is exactly what happened.

Having spent all this time prophesying about the nations surrounding Israel, the scene finally shifts back to Israel in the next chapter. God commissions Ezekiel as Israel’s official prophet or watchman, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.” (33:7) This is a task with life and death responsibilities. If Ezekiel fails to “speak out to dissuade [the wicked] from their ways, that wicked person will die for[c] their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood.” (33:8)

There’s also some pretty harsh law-giving here. If a formerly righteous person sins, he doesn’t get credit for his past righteousness. Nor are past wicked deeds held against the person who repents and now seeks righteousness: “If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, they will die for it. And if a wicked person turns away from their wickedness and does what is just and right, they will live by doing so.” (33:18, 19)  It’s all pretty black and white. But even so, Israel complains that ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ (33:20)  Then again, no matter how just God’s law is, like Israelwe will still complain.

The key judicial concept that arises here is that God judges us by our individual acts, not by the standards of the community at large. God says, “But I will judge each of you according to your own ways.” (33:20b) Which looks to me like a key foundational concept for our own judicial system.

1 Peter 2:13–25: Peter dives into the political implications and responsibilities of being a Christian—a ‘resident alien’— in a secular world: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” (13, 14)

He advises us to “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. ” (16) and that we are to “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” (17) In other words, we are to live within the lawful bounds of the culture in which we find ourselves.

But within that culture the reality is that Christians are likely to be treated unjustly and even beaten by those with power over them. This was certainly true in the case of slaves: “it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God.” (19)

Peter promises there will be suffering as we live as Christians in a hostile world and “if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” (20) We American think we are suffering under the weight of a hostile “post-Christian culture. But our pains are nothing compared to the fate of Christians in the Middle east and many parts of Asia. I read the other day that Christianity is the most persecuted religion on earth and I believe it. Peter’s advice is just as relevant today as it was in his time. Contrary to our wishes for a smooth an easy time of it, true Christian faith is no walk in the park.

The back story for Peter’s essay here is doubtless that many Christians were beginning to endure substantial suffering at the hands of Rome—suffering that would eventually lead to the deadly games in the Colosseum at Rome. He clearly is writing to people who have been treated and punished unjustly

So how does Peter justify this position of enduring suffering without complaint? By reminding us of Christ’s example: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (23)

Of course, the question is, if I were placed in a position of having to defend my faith by suffering at the hands of the authorities

Psalm 119:81–88; Ezekiel 31:1–32:16; 1 Peter 2:1–12

Psalm 119:81–88: This stanza starts out as pretty much a standard supplication, albeit with some nice imagery such as eyes that long and speak:
My being longs for Your rescue,
for Your word I hope.
My eyes pine for Your utterance, saying
“When will You console me?” (81-82)

Alter then renders the Hebrew with  a very cool but puzzling simile:
Though I was like a skin-flask in smoke,
Your statutes I did not forget.” (83)

Although I know what a skin flask is, I’m not sure what its behavior in smoke is. I’m guessing that the psalmist is referring back to his recent illness where the smoke represents sickness. In any event he has remained faithful to God’s law through it all.

The most profound verse in this section includes the philosophical questions he poses:
How many are the days of Your servant?
When will You exact justice from my pursuers?” (84)

We have the sense that given his recent illness and renewed awareness of his mortality he realizes he may not have much time left to live. So he asks God why justice is being delayed.  The question of delayed justice rings down the ages. God surely knows that evil-doers are wrecking lives and fomenting injustice. Why is God so silent for so long?

Our faithful psalmist has had a near death experience and he begs for God’s intervention and justice:
All Your commands are trustworthy,
For no reason they pursued me—help me!
They nearly put an end to me on earth,
yet I forsook not Your decrees.” (86, 87)

This is the great conundrum about God, isn’t it? We may be true and faithful yet bad things continue to happen while he remains silent. God’s silence truly tests our faith just as it did the psalmist’s.

Ezekiel 31:1–32:16: Ezekiel, speaking as usual in the voice of God, creates what I think as one of the greatest metaphors in this metaphorical book. Addressing the Pharaoh of Egypt, he compares Assyria to a huge cedar tree:
Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon,
    with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest;
it towered on high,
    its top above the thick foliage.

So it towered higher
    than all the trees of the field;
its boughs increased
    and its branches grew long,
    spreading because of abundant waters.

It was majestic in beauty,
    with its spreading boughs,
for its roots went down
    to abundant waters.” (31:3, 5, 7)

But like we humans, the metaphorical tree became prideful and God tells the Pharaoh, “because it was proud of its height, …I cast it aside,  and the most ruthless of foreign nations cut it down and left it. Its boughs fell on the mountains and in all the valleys; its branches lay broken in all the ravines of the land.” (31:10, 11, 12)

Not just that tree representing Assyria, but God brings down all the trees representing all the nations: “They too, like the great cedar, had gone down to the realm of the dead, to those killed by the sword, along with the armed men who lived in its shade among the nations.” (31:17) And Ezekiel prophesies that despite the Pharaoh’s current grandeur and power, he “too, will be brought down with the trees of Eden to the earth below; you will lie among the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.” (31:18)

The exact nature of Pharaoh’s fall is described in the next chapter. No pleasant metaphors here as we read some pretty gruesome imagery:
I will spread your flesh on the mountains
    and fill the valleys with your remains.
I will drench the land with your flowing blood
    all the way to the mountains,
    and the ravines will be filled with your flesh.” (32:5,6)

Egypt’s downfall will have repercussions across all the other nations:
I will cause many peoples to be appalled at you,
    and their kings will shudder with horror because of you
    when I brandish my sword before them.” (32:10)

Specifically, Egypt will be (or was) conquered by Babylon:
“‘The sword of the king of Babylon
    will come against you.
I will cause your hordes to fall

    by the swords of mighty men—
    the most ruthless of all nations.” (32:11, 12)

The question remains: why these lengthy poems about Egypt? Clearly, there was a military and/ or diplomatic relationship between Egypt and Israel that would come to a tragic end. These long passages about Egypt serve as a warning to Judah regarding its own fate at the hands of the Babylonians.

1 Peter 2:1–12: It is Peter who develops the metaphor of Christ as the rejected cornerstone to its fullest extent. Here the simile opens with Christians being “like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (5) Unlike the author of Hebrews who tells his readers that Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek, here Peter views Christians as a brand new “holy priesthood.” Nor is this priesthood anything to be ashamed about. Christians are to wear the priesthood proudly, as he quotes Isaiah 28 to make it clear that “the one who trusts in him/ will never be put to shame.” (6) 

He then contrasts Christian belief with those who do not believe in what I take as a pretty pointed reference to the Jews who rejected Jesus by quoting verses from Psalm 118:
“The stone the builders rejected
 has become the cornerstone,”
and,
“A stone that causes people to stumble

 and a rock that makes them fall.” (7,8)

I think it’s critical to reflect on the verse about stumbling and falling. Let’s face it: Christianity rubs against the grain of all cultures, which in turn spend a lot of time, energy, and money to reject the claims of Christ. That’s certainly the case today with lawsuits against Christian photographers and bakers because they refuse to to photograph or bake a cake for a gay wedding. There are lots of other examples.

On the other hand, I think Peter is implying that unless the culture is actively rejecting Christianity and the church is not really doing its job.

We arrive at one of the greatest and most eloquent promises in the NT, which is worth quoting in full: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (9, 10)

I know that for one I do not really reflect on what it truly means to be one of the people of God nor on the enormous gift of mercy that we have received.

So how do we live inside a hostile culture while trying to lead pure lives? Peter has the best answer, I think. We live “as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” (11) Even when we are wrongly accused Peter tells us to persevere and refute the claims of the culture by living so purely that in the ned, the wider culture cannot ignore us: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (12)

So the question is, am I living for Christ such that my light stands out and is noticed by others?

Psalm 119:73–80; Ezekiel 29:13–30:26; 1 Peter 1:13–25

Psalm 119:73–80: Our psalmist draws a distinction between the fact of his creation by God and his desire for God to provide intellectual and spiritual knowledge of God’s law and thus become a happily shining example to others:
Your hands made me and set me firm.
Give me insight that I may learn Your commands.
Those who fear You see me and rejoice,
for I hope in Your word.” (73, 74)

Well, there are certainly worse things to pray for. The intriguing thought is that upon our birth our intellect is essentially unformed and that what we learn and come to know is yet another gift from God. As far as the psalmist is concerned it is our responsibility to pray for knowledge and insight—it does not just naturally arise from our own efforts.

Our psalmist is of the deuteronomic old school as he asserts that a just God was the source of his recent illness:
I know, Lord, that Your laws are just,
and in faithfulness You did afflict me.” (75)

Really? Is it because God is faithful to us that he deigns to afflict us? Seems to me that by virtue of living in a fallen world there is plenty of affliction on offer in the world that God had nothing to do with creating.

The remainder of this stanza is basically a standard supplication to God that the psalmist will enjoy God’s blessing while his adversaries who attacked him also receive their just reward of humiliation:
May the arrogant be shamed, for with lies they distorted my name.
As for me I shall dwell on Your decrees.” (78)

But also having endured the false accusations of his opponents,  our psalmist prays that he be received back into the  community of God-followers:
May those who fear You turn back to me.” (79a)

Even though we now live under the terms of grace, it’s worth reflecting that we can be falsely accused and thereby wrongly excluded from the community. Sometimes we can find justice only by asking God to work on the hearts of those who doubt us.

Ezekiel 29:13–30:26: Our prophet is i

nto some serious prophetic forecasts here as he predicts that Egypt will fall from its perch as a mighty nation and become a “lowly kingdom.” (29:14b) Moreover, “Egypt will no longer be a source of confidence for the people of Israel but will be a reminder of their sin in turning to her for help.” (29:16) This is clearly a reference to Judah’s last gasp of seeking a military alliance Egypt for help as the Babylonians commenced their attack on Judah.

But what’s really bizarre here is that Ezekiel, speaking as the voice of God, asserts that “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre” (29:18) but that the Babylonian army did not receive its just reward of looting and plundering. Ezekiel announces that God is “going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth. He will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army.I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for me, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (29:19, 20)

Really? Why do I have the feeling that Ezekiel was providing religious cover to justify Babylon’s pillaging of Egypt? Ezekiel sounds as if he’s become the court prophet for Nebuchadnezzar.

Just to make sure we get the point, the prophet now provides a lengthy poetic lament about Egypt’s defeat being strictly the work of God as vengeance for its manifold sins:
Dark will be the day at Tahpanhes
    when I break the yoke of Egypt;
    there her proud strength will come to an end.
She will be covered with clouds,
    and her villages will go into captivity.
19 So I will inflict punishment on Egypt,
    and they will know that I am the Lord.’” (30:18, 19)

This is one of those Old Testament descriptions of God’s vengeance that makes us uncomfortable if not outright hostile when Ezekiel asserts, “Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against Pharaoh king of Egypt. I will break both his arms, the good arm as well as the broken one, and make the sword fall from his hand.” (22)

I’m sorry, but for me this entire reading is an ex post facto justification of Babylon conquering Egypt. And there is certainly a whiff of sycophancy on Ezekiel’s part. If we ever needed an example of the rule that winners write the history it is certainly right here.

1 Peter 1:13–25: Peter asserts that the Christian faith is based on intellect as well as feeling: “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” (13) As my Dad used to say a true religion does not require one “to leave his brains at the door.” Yes, I know that the heart is an essential element of being a Christian, but as Peter notes here, so too is a sober inquiring mind. That’s certainly why more than any other religion, Christianity has such well-developed theology. Sober minds seek to understand.

Also at the heart of Peter’s message here is that we live differently than the culture that surrounds is. Reminding us that the world ‘holy’ means set apart, Peter advises us, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.” (14)

He goes on to remind us that our redemption has been accomplished via a heavy price far greater than mere gold and silver: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (18, 19)

This statement stands at the center of Lutheran theology: our faith is not about something we did, but about something God did for us through Christ’s sacrifice. But just because we’ve been redeemed doesn’t mean we don’t have significant responsibilities as practicing Christians. Peter tells us that the result of redemption is love (which is one reason why I like Peter so much more than James): “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” (22) This is where the heart becomes important: In our love for each other

It appears that Peter is countering some false theology about the nature of being born again when he remind his audience that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (23) The great truth is that while we are mortal and we will die, the Word of God, (which is clearly the Word in the John 1 sense) is eternal. Peter backs this up with a quote from Isaiah 40 that makes this distinction clear. We’re like grass that withers “but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (25a)

Too bad we tend to think we’re immortal and that God is ephemeral. As Peter notes, it’s quite the opposite.

Psalm 119:65–72; Ezekiel 28:11–29:12; 1 Peter 1:1–12

Psalm 119:65–72: Our psalmist has endured some sort of severe illness which has caused him to reflect on his life and the direction he was going. Before his illness he was definitely headed down the wrong path and doubtless consorting with the neer-do-wells he now calls arrogant. Now that he has experienced what was probably a near-death experience he has turned back to following God’s law:
Before I was afflicted, I went astray,
but now Your utterance I observe.” (67)

I well know whereof the psalmist speaks. There was nothing like hearing the words, “You have a nasty cancer, Craig” to suddenly stop drifting through life, acknowledge my mortality, and begin serious reflection on the direction my life and my relationships—especially my relationship with God—were taking.

Our psalmist realizes that God is the source of all that is good:
You are good and do good.” (68a)

He abandons his erstwhile friends when he realizes they are up to no good as he compares their falsehoods with God’s eternal truths. And he is sure to let us know that he has chosen the righteous path:
The arrogant plaster me with lies—
I with whole heart keep Your decrees.
Their heart grows dull like fat—
as for me, in Your teaching I delight.” (69, 70)

Looking back, he realizes that the reflection and then the repentance that arose from his sickness was a beneficial because it turned him back to God:
It was good for me that I was afflicted,
so that I might learn Your statutes.” (71)

I have to agree. The reality of illness forced me to think about more serious matters—matters of life and death. Unlike the psalmist though, I was not surrounded by people spewing lies. Rather, it was the love of God expressed through the deeds and words of those around me that helped me realize that God was very near.

Ezekiel 28:11–29:12: God has deployed Ezekiel as the prophet who carries God’s judgement outside of Judah and Israel. Tyre certainly receives a lot of God’s attention as Ezekiel continues to prophesy to the king of Tyre of the doom to come. He reminds the king of what once was:
“‘You were the seal of perfection,
    full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden,
    the garden of God;

You were blameless in your ways
    from the day you were created
    till wickedness was found in you.” (12b, 13a, 15)

But as always, the problem is pride as Ezekiel continues:
Your heart became proud
    on account of your beauty,
and you corrupted your wisdom
    because of your splendor.” (28:17)

As the cliche has it: pride goes before the fall. And Tyre has fallen indeed—apparently by an all-consuming fire:
By your many sins and dishonest trade
    you have desecrated your sanctuaries.
So I made a fire come out from you,
    and it consumed you,
and I reduced you to ashes on the ground
    in the sight of all who were watching.” (28:18)

Ezekiel levels similar prophecies of doom against Sidon. But rather than fire, a plague will do them in:
I will send a plague upon you
    and make blood flow in your streets.
The slain will fall within you,
    with the sword against you on every side.” (28:23)

The elimination of this nettlesome neighbor will be positive for Israel: ““‘No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns.” (28:24) Even better, God will one day restore Israel: “When I gather the people of Israel from the nations where they have been scattered, I will be proved holy through them in the sight of the nations.” (28:25)

But Ezekiel isn’t finished yet as he turns his prophetic attention to Egypt. Evidently, the Pharaoh has claimed that he was the creator of the Nile River. Needless to say, God the Creator is offended at the Pharaoh’s temerity:
I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,
    you great monster lying among your streams.
You say, “The Nile belongs to me;
    I made it for myself.” (29:3)

Just to prove his point, Ezekiel proclaims that God “will bring a sword against you and kill both man and beast. Egypt will become a desolate wasteland. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” (29:8,9) Moreover, it is Egypt that will be scattered: “And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.” (29:12b)

So Tyre falls by fire, Sidon by plague, and Egypt by famine. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Ezekiel is in fact recording actual historical events. There’s an aura of doom about Ezekiel that makes him a much scarier prophet than Jeremiah or Isaiah.

1 Peter 1:1–12: With James in our rear view mirror we arrive at the epistles ascribed to Peter. I think we’ll find him to be a good deal less preachy and for me, anyway, far more uplifting than James.

Peter’s letter is directed simultaneously to a number of churches “throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia,Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.” (1) We have an immediate Trinitarian reference in Peter’s introduction with a bonus comment on predestination: “who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood.” (2)

Peter views the gift of the Christian life as “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.” (4) However, the inheritance will not come easily, “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (6) It is these difficulties that test us and strengthen us: “These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (7)

Peter is describing exactly what our psalmist in today’s reading has asserted: trials have brought him closer to God—just as they bring peter’s audience—and us—closer to God.

For me, the aspect of this reading that stands out is that Peter, who has indeed seen Jesus, is writing words of assurance to those who have not: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (8) Even back then close to the actual events faith was—and is— a difficult journey. I am grateful to Peter that he acknowledges this reality.

 

 

 

Psalm 119:57–64; Ezekiel 27:12–28:10; James 5:13–20

Psalm 119:57–64: Perhaps it’s an unfair response on my part, but there seems to be a certain braggadocio on the part of our psalmist as he recalls all the times he has confronted temptation and yet has never failed to follow God’s law:
I have reckoned my ways,
and turned back my feet to Your precepts.
I hastened and did not linger,
to observe Your commands.

Your teaching I did not forget.
At midnight I rose to acclaim You
for Your righteous laws.” (59-62)

There’s also a dollop of unctuousness about him as he reminds us that he’s consistently on the side of the angels—and consorts only with all those others who also diligently follow God’s law:
A friend I am to all who fear You,
and to those who observe Your decrees.” (63)

While his motivations are certainly sincere, the psalmist sounds like many Christians I’ve encountered who make sure you know just how faithfully they read their bible or attend worship or love Jesus. The really skilled ones manage—like the psalmist here—to communicate their religious superiority while praying about how well they have followed God this week. This is where the phrase “holier than thou” arises…

Ezekiel 27:12–28:10: In a book that seems awash in apparent non-sequiturs this “Lament over Tyre” certainly stands out. Unfortunately, we do not have the back-story as to why or how the mercantilist kingdom of Tyre plays a significant role in the stories of Judah and Israel. But here it is as we encounter an amazingly detailed catalog of Tyre’s various business dealings with just about every nation and city in the Mediterranean basin. We learn that Tarshish “exchanged silver, iron, tin and lead for your merchandise.” (12) And more ominously that “‘Greece, Tubal and Meshek did business with you; they traded human beings and articles of bronze for your wares.” (13) The list goes on through “Men of Beth Togarmah and men of Rhodes traded with you, and many coastlands were your customers; they paid you with ivory tusks and ebony.” (14, 15)

We finally arrive at agrarian “Judah and Israel [who] traded with you; they exchanged wheat from Minnith and confections, honey, olive oil and balm for your wares.” (17)

What’s astounding about this catalog is both the variety of goods, the extent of trade, and the tremendous wealth involved. We tend to think of ancient kingdoms as relatively unsophisticated compared to our present trade and wealth. While we certainly trade on a larger scale, these ancient kingdoms and city-states were hardly slouches.

But now we come to the reason that Tyre is included in Ezekiel’s prophecies. Despite its influence and wealth, Tyre is doomed and all its economic power comes to naught:
Now you are shattered by the sea
    in the depths of the waters;
your wares and all your company
    have gone down with you.
All who live in the coastlands
    are appalled at you;
their kings shudder with horror
    and their faces are distorted with fear.
The merchants among the nations scoff at you;
    you have come to a horrible end
    and will be no more.’” (27:34-36)

Ezekiel minces no words as to the root cause of Tyre’s downfall. It is the arrogance of pride:
“‘In the pride of your heart
    you say, “I am a god;
I sit on the throne of a god
    in the heart of the seas.”
But you are a mere mortal and not a god,
    though you think you are as wise as a god.”

“‘Because you think you are wise,
    as wise as a god,
I am going to bring foreigners against you,
    the most ruthless of nations;
they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom
    and pierce your shining splendor.
They will bring you down to the pit,
    and you will die a violent death
    in the heart of the seas.” (28: 1, 6-8)

For me, it is impossible to read this passage without thinking about what fate awaits today’s nations—and especially our own nation—as the world comes to believe that the price of our relentless exploitation of God’s creation will not one day come due. Will our end be as tragic as Tyre’s?

James 5:13–20: Our writer begins to sound a bit like the spokesperson on a late night TV commercial espousing the efficacy of Christian belief: “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (13, 14)

But more troubling for me is James’ claim that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” (15) Maybe. Maybe not. This statement leads leads all too easily to the conviction that those who are not healed possess insufficient faith. I remember back in 1987 when my friend Steve was dying of AIDS (caused by a kidney transplant before anyone knew that the virus was blood-borne) that several of his erstwhile (and very fundamental) Christian friends were convinced he was dying because this wonderful Christian man had insufficient faith that he would be healed.

While I cannot argue with James’ assertion that “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (16) I cannot accept that if we pray as fervently as Elijah that we’ll affect the weather.

No wonder Luther called this epistle “a book of straw.”

 

 

 

Psalm 119:41–48; Ezekiel 24:9–25:14; James 4:7–17

Psalm 119:41–48: In this lengthy disquisition to God, we see that the cares of the psalmist are very similar to our so many centuries later. In the same way that many Christians find their beliefs under attack by today’s culture, our psalmist beseeches God for wisdom in how to respond to these attacks:
“...that I may give answer to those who taunt me,
for I have trusted in Your word.
And do not take the least word of truth from my mouth…

And let me speak of Your precepts
before kings without being shamed.” (42b, 43a, 46)

Yet, speaking about my faith to doubting strangers—or even friends—is the most difficult task of all for me—even though we have even better news than the psalmist who can speak only of  God’s law. We have the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet, I hesitate and prefer to blend in rather than set myself apart from the deteriorating mores of the culture in which we now live.

I have always admired those who speak boldly, unafraid of what others might think. These verses need to become my prayer.

Ezekiel 24:9–25:14: Following the prophetic imprecations against Jerusalem as  a corrupt cooking pot that cannot be cleaned, we encounter a sad personal note. God tells Ezekiel that his wife will die, but that he cannot mourn publicly: “The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears. Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead. Keep your turban fastened and your sandals on your feet; do not cover your mustache and beard or eat the customary food of mourners.” (24:15-17)

And rather than be at his wife’s bedside as she dies, Ezekiel reports, “So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded.” (24:18) In short, the job of prophet was more important than Ezekiel’s love for his wife. Ugh.

The people around him understandably question Ezekiel’s lack of respect for his dead wife. But Ezekiel replies that in the same way that he cannot mourn his wife, they will not be able to mourn the upcoming destruction of the temple at Jerusalem: “you will do as I have done. You will not cover your mustache and beard or eat the customary food of mourners. You will keep your turbans on your heads and your sandals on your feet. You will not mourn or weep but will waste away because of  your sins and groan among yourselves.” (24:22)

But I have to ask: would God really require Ezekiel to use the death of his wife as a symbol of the destruction to come? Yes, God was angry with the people of Jerusalem but one wonders if Ezekiel’s own love for his wife had become so subsumed to his angry rhetoric that this is more an act of the prophet than of God.

What’s not said here is that the people of Jerusalem, having seen Ezekiel fail to mourn his wife, doubtless reject anything else the prophet has to say and he is forced to find new territory to which to prophesy.

As the next chapter opens, we find Ezekiel far away from Jerusalem, preaching the same message of imminent doom against the Ammonites. This prophecy is even harsher than those against the people of Jerusalem: “I will wipe you out from among the nations and exterminate you from the countries. I will destroy you, and you will know that I am the Lord.’” (25:7) Given that there are no more Ammonites, this prophecy was certainly fulfilled.

Same goes for the hapless inhabitants of Moab, who will be conquered: “I will give Moab along with the Ammonites to the people of the East as a possession, so that the Ammonites will not be remembered among the nations; and I will inflict punishment on Moab. Then they will know that I am the Lord.’” (25:10)  We presume that the “people of the east” are the Babylonians.

Finally, there is Edom which “took revenge on Judah and became very guilty by doing so.” (25:12) God’s vengeance is the reward for Edom’s vengeance: “I will take vengeance on Edom by the hand of my people Israel, and they will deal with Edom in accordance with my anger and my wrath; they will know my vengeance, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (25:14)

Ezekiel’s God is angry at everyone and will act accordingly. He seems much more the adolescent God than the mature loving God we see in the New Testament. This is one of those inexplicable places where we can only say, “Noted.”

James 4:7–17: James is sounding very Ezekiel-like, but without the threat of imminent destruction: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” (7-9)

In other words, being a Christian is a serious business; we cannot treat our faith lightly or as an object of humorous derision. This is one of those sections that remind me that I really don’t like this epistle. I’ve seen too many humorless Christians justify their dour outlook on life with these verses.

Nevertheless, the epistle also contains pretty useful advice. Here, James warns against judging our neighbors because to do so is to judge the law itself: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it.” (11) Indeed, he writes, “who are you to judge your neighbor?” (12) And yet we do it all the time. And social media has only made those judgements easier and more widespread.

Perhaps my favorite section in this book is what many psalms have already observed: our lives are brief and ephemeral. James notes that we are wrong to assume we have assurance about the future: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (13, 14)  And yet this is exactly how most of us live: blissfully unaware that today might be our last day on earth.

James is also frightfully clear on the sin of pride: “As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.” (16) In other words, it’s a sin to boast of how much money we’ve made in the stock market or in various real estate deals.

And finally, not only  are there sins of commission, there are sins of omission as well: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (17)

James certainly sets a high bar for Christian behavior.

 

 

 

Psalm 118:15–21; Ezekiel 17:11–18:18; Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8

Psalm 118:15–21: Having been rescued from certain death by God, our psalmist continues to rejoice in song:
A voice of glad song and rescue
in the tents of the just:
The Lord’s right hand does valiantly.
The Lord’s right hand is raised,
The Lord’s right hand does valiantly.” (15, 16)

He then reiterates one of the themes that recurs throughout the psalms: God can expect praise and worship only from those who are alive:
I shall not die but live
and recount the deeds of Yahweh.” (17)

But as always, there is the deuteronomic idea that the speaker has been punished by God for some transgression, but happily not punished to the point of death:
Yah harshly chastised me
but to death did not deliver me.” (18)

The psalmist now moves to an overarching metaphor: that justice is the entryway into a full relationship with God—and that one must be righteous before God in order to worship him:
Open for me the gates of justice—
I would enter them, I would acclaim Yahweh.
This is the gate of the Lord—
the just will enter it.
I acclaim You for You have answered me,
and You have become my rescue.” (19-21)

As always, our response to being rescued by God from peril and more particularly from disease, is to worship him—and then to tell others about God’s rescuing power.

Ezekiel 17:11–18:18: Referring to an incident we read in Jeremiah, Ezekiel chastises the puppet king Zedekiah of Judah for betraying the promise he made to his Babylonian conquerors by calling upon Egypt for military help: “But the king rebelled against him by sending his envoys to Egypt to get horses and a large army. Will he succeed? ” (17:15) In God’s eyes this is a great sin because “He despised the oath by breaking the covenant.” (17:18) God does not tolerate broken vows. As a result of Zedekiah’s malfeasance, God “will repay him for despising my oath and breaking my covenant.” (17:19) The form of this repayment is harsh indeed: “I will bring him to Babylon and execute judgment on him there because he was unfaithful to me. All his choice troops will fall by the sword, and the survivors will be scattered to the winds.” (17:20, 21)

Having dispensed with this betrayal, Ezekiel, speaking as always as the voice of God, changes the subject, turning from punishment to restoration as he and speaks metaphorically of a Messiah who will restore Israel to its former glory: “On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.” (17:23)

The chapter ends with God’s assertion that he does what he promises to do—whether restoration or punishment: “‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’” (17:24) And as the chapter tells us, God will punish and God will restore.

Chapter 18 performs an important theological duty. Ezekiel, speaking as God, announces that the old proverb that states the children are punished for the sins of their parents is no longer valid:

“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
    and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel.” (18: 2, 3) Rather, God puts it quite clearly: “The one who sins is the one who will die.” (18:4)

A long poetic disquisition describing the acts of a righteous man follows, concluding that
He [who] follows my decrees
    and faithfully keeps my laws.
That man is righteous;
    he will surely live,
declares the Sovereign Lord.” (18:9)

Then Ezekiel writes of the sinful acts of the righteous man’s son, asking rhetorically, “Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things  (though the father has done none of them)…Will such a man live?” (18:10, 13a) Ezekiel states quite clearly that the fate of the sinful person is determined by his own acts. The righteousness of his father does not protect him from punishment as God’s rhetorical question is answered in the strongest possible terms: “He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.” (18:13b)

But if the son of the wicked man is righteous, and “He keeps my laws and follows my decrees” (18:17a), then, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.” (18:17b)

The idea of bearing the consequences of one’s own sins or one’s own righteousness may seem obvious to us who believe in individual responsibility. After all, this concept is at the very foundation of western justice. But as this passage points out there was once a widespread belief that children were punished for the sins of their parents, or that sinful sons were excused by virtue of being the children of righteous parents.

Unfortunately, this concept of personal responsibility, of bearing the consequences of one’s own actions, is being undermined in American jurisprudence with the relentless growth of the idea that sinful acts are the consequence of being a member of a victim class.

Hebrews 13:20–James 1:8: Our Hebrews author concludes his letter with an effusive and really quite wonderful benediction: “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,  equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (13:20, 21)

But like Paul, this author is a great believer in postscripts and he keeps on writing in what I think is a marvelously ironic statement: “Brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly.” (13:22) If the preceding 13 chapters are the author’s “brief” thoughts on this new theology, one can only imagine the length of his more comprehensive writings!

We do at least get a couple of personal notes. Whoever our author was—and we’re quite sure it’s not Paul—he also knew Timothy, who has apparently just been released from prison. He also writes that “Those from Italy send you their greetings.” (13:24) so we can surmise that the letter was written from Rome. And thus ends this most theologically dense treatise.

As is sometimes the Moravians’ habit, we move immediately to the next book, James—the epistle that Luther called “a book of straw” because of—as we shall see—its relentless emphasis on good works.

The author of James appears to be writing at a time of trial for the very young Christian church: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (1:2, 3)

As far as James is concerned, faith is all about assurance; there is no room for doubt: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (6). Moreover, the doubter “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” (7, 8)

Speaking as a Christian whose faith is given to occasional doubts, I’m pretty sure this is not going to be my favorite epistle in the NT…